Don't even think about dropping in uninvited on sealand, a tiny, self-proclaimed principality situated on a stern-looking iron platform supported by two concrete pillars 10 km off the southeast coast of England. Occupied since 1967 by an eccentric former British army major, "Prince" Roy Bates, this former World War II anti-aircraft deck is manned 24 hours a day by four armed guards and is out of bounds to all but a carefully screened, closely supervised few. The experience of German lawyer Gernot Putz should be a warning to anyone thinking of challenging Bates' authority: in a daring raid on the fortress after a financial dispute, Putz was captured, "tried" for treason and held for seven weeks before receiving a "royal" pardon.
Recently, a warmer welcome was extended to Sean Hastings, a 32-year-old American cyberrebel in whom the libertarian Bates appears to have found a kindred spirit. Hastings is founder and ceo of HavenCo (www.havenco.com), which seeks to offer a regulation-free cyberhaven to any company wanting "unsurpassed physical security from the world, including government subpoenas and search-and-seizures of equipment and data," according to a company statement. For a one-time fee of $10,000 and a monthly payment of between $500 and $5,000, HavenCo is inviting clients to store their data "openly, pseudonymously or anonymously" on computers purchased and maintained by HavenCo and located in specially built rooms within the concrete pillars.
On Sealand, almost anything goes. That includes operating an anonymous and untraceable payment system and publishing adult pornography, but excludes running a spamming operation, mounting cyberattacks on competitors, laundering drug money and publishing child pornography. But HavenCo's rather earnest assertion that "individuals and groups engaging in unsavory activities will be publicly admonished in a world where communications are free" does not wash with the British government, which insists that Sealand is part of the U.K. and therefore subject to British laws. In the late '60s the authorities tried to shut down Bates' pirate radio operation, despite the fact that Sealand was then about 5 km outside British territorial waters (the limit has since been extended to just under 20 km).
In recent years Britain has shown little interest in asserting jurisdiction over Sealand. That may change, thinks David Cantor, Brussels-based head of U.S. law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges' international telecommunications group, "if they start doing things that are unacceptable or illegal from the standpoint of the Western powers." Such things include not only money laundering and pornography, but also tax evasion — an activity conspicuously absent from HavenCo's very short list of "unacceptable uses of the network." Says Cantor, "[Tax evasion] is not tolerated in the case of Switzerland or Liechtenstein, so why should it be tolerated in the case of a platform in the North Sea? If the [purpose of HavenCo] is simply to try to keep the world safe for tax evaders, then the company has a useful lifetime of about 15 minutes."
HavenCo and its hardy hosts evidently plan on being around a lot longer: they have reportedly stockpiled a year's worth of food, fuel and other supplies in case of a blockade. Wait for the movie.